21 October 2008

Film Journal: The Chase (1966)

It seems difficult to say anything insightful about The Chase after reading Robin Wood's essay, but I'll try. I want to focus my discussion of The Chase on its invocation of and the family melodrama and the Western genres, using Wood's schemata as a guideline. As Wood notes, The Chase works effectively in conveying meaning through its use and inversion of genre conventions. I want to try to identify some of those conventions, compare/contrast what Penn does with them, and suggest how they either fit into Wood's schemata or have some other implied meaning.

The melodrama I am most reminded of is Sirk's Written on the Wind, especially in the oil tycoon as father figure. Jasper Hadley and Val Rogers are both rich men with one son to whom they wish to pass down their fortune. Like Jasper, Val Rogers is disappointed in his son, seeing more strength of character in someone else. For Jasper, it is Mitch Wayne; for Val, it is Calder. However, unlike Jasper, it becomes apparent that Val actually did love his son as he cries out for him as he lay dying. Calder, unlike Mitch, also does not return affection for Rogers, to whom he makes a final break from when he refuses to allow him into the jail cell. The result of this, as Wood notes, is a "collapse of confidence in patriarchal authority," and marks the complete isolation and destruction of Rogers and his empire - any potential candidates have walked away (Calder, Anna) or died (Jake). In Written on the Wind however, Marylee is left to inherit the family business which is her great tragedy. In this case, the patriarch figure, though dead, continues to hold a grip on his family, which Sirk makes clear through Jasper's portrait holding the same oil rig statuette that Marylee cries on. Thus, I would suggest that the view of the patriarch of Sirk's '50s film is much bleaker than Penn's. Wood notes this slight hopefulness at the end of this essay by noting how Anna is able to walk away as a representative of a new generation unrestrained by the father figure (Anna also disowns her father-in-law early in the film when we first see her). I would say that Anna is able to do what Marylee is not.

An idea that I see run through The Chase and some Westerns is that of the Western hero being ushered out by capitalism; the days of the gun come to a close and the cowboy becomes irrelevent. We saw this idea with The Professionals through the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned Western heroes and J.W. Grant, the capitalist businessman. The Professionals made those heroes relevant by reinforcing their ideals of justice and goodness through their saving of Raza and Maria and their rejection of Grant's money. There is a certain nostalgia for those heroes and those values and even though their future is probably limited as cowboys by the film's end, Brooks reasserts their value by showing how they can survive against people like Grant and the age of capitalism. In The Chase, however, the spirit of the Western hero, as conveyed through Calder, is absolutely defeated. Calder is the connection to the past, signified by his hat and old-fashioned holster and he is not respected nor is able to protect anybody - Bubber is shot, Lester is beaten, Jake dies, and he himself is beaten to a pulp - and eventually has to leave with his head down. Unlike the professionals of Brooks' film, Calder's old-fashioned values and heroics cannot keep up with the time he is in. A poignant moment comes when he laments with "I should have called for backup," when he realizes that he can not do it on his own as the old-fashioned Western hero. I believe Penn's film is the most pessimistic in its view of the Western hero being killed out. In a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Western hero, Tom, at least makes the choice to hand over the West to Rans after doing his last noble act; though he does not go publicly recognized, he still has some dignity left recognized by Rans. In The Professionals they have one last grand adventure. In Penn's film Calder is simply defeated on all fronts. It is particularly interesting to compare The Professionals with The Chase because they were made in the same year, meaning that they are reflecting the same time historical period in America, only with incredibly different views.

15 October 2008

Technicolor Dreams

The Criterion Collection just revealed their new releases set for January and Magnificent Obsession is included! Safe to say I am psyched for a new Douglas Sirk release. I have some unexplainable love for the saturated technicolor hues and Rock Hudson. Jane Wyman was great in All That Heaven Allows so I look forward to her paired up with Hudson again in this film. I shouldn't get too excited; it's three months away. In the meantime I'll stare at this beautiful DVD cover art. Now if they'll just jump on getting Tarnished Angels released...

13 October 2008

Film Journal: The Professionals (1966)

In many ways The Professionals can be seen as a swan song for the old-fashioned Western hero. There are many implications of a paradigm shift in the West at the beginning of the 20th century (the time period of the film) with the cowboy being less of a relevant or necessary figure, largely displaced by business tycoons and property owners, represented in the film by J.W. Grant. Brooks makes his film in the latter half of the ‘60s, a time when the traditional Western film sees endless revision and transformation. John Ford did The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four years earlier, a film that can be seen as Ford’s own farewell to the West and the Western hero, and a film which I think resonates with The Professionals thematically. As a revisionist western in itself, The Professionals evokes nostalgia for the old West through its central characters and reaffirms those values by addressing issues of the 1960s such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

The premise of the film is based on a genre convention: a group of men decide to do one last mission for money. Though this has been seen in Western films as well as heist films, I believe it has a further implication in being not only the last hurrah for the characters, but a last attempt to assert the values of the Old West before they die. We get the feeling that with the death of the characters comes the death of the Western hero as the film takes place around 1915, making Rico’s crew the last generation of cowboys. Standing in contrast to that is J.W. Grant, the moneyman who is able to buy whatever he needs and who rides trains and automobiles instead of horses.

As the hunt for Raza continues through the film, the morality of stealing back Grant’s wife becomes highly ambiguous; the line dividing good and evil becomes incredibly blurry. We find that not only did Rico and Bill fight for the Mexican rebels alongside Raza, revealing a more vulnerable and idealistic side of the tough guy characters, but that Bill was in love with Chiquita. The embodiment of this romantic idealism for Raza is Maria, who would be suppressed and emotionally killed if she were to go back to Grant. The moral dilemma of returning Maria or not is further complicated by the old school code of professionalism that Rico has to simply get the job done. However, it is ultimately not Rico who acts as the agent for change in the film, but Bill, who we find is not unlike Raza. Just like Ethan Edwards and Scar are two sides of the same coin in The Searchers, Bill and Raza are both headstrong, tough, and resolute and it is in a long, confusing sequence in which they face off in the boulders that we find they are motivated by the same thing.

This particular sequence has unmatching shots pasted back to back, making almost no attempt to clearly distinguish spatial perimeters between Bill and Raza. At times it seems they are in clear view of each other, at others that they are boulders away. At first it comes off as just bad shooting and editing, but I believe it is done that way on purpose to convey both Bill’s internal state as well as our uncertainty about who to root for at this point in the film. The more I find about Raza and the way he loves Maria genuinely, the more sympathetic I feel towards him and the more I am unsure whether I want him to live or die. The more Bill is reminded of his time fighting alongside Raza, the greater the struggle in his face. It is at the moment that he shoots Chiquita that I think Bill finally realizes he has made the wrong choice to fight against Raza. Chiquita embodies not only his past love, but the romanticism and idealism of his past in fighting with the radical Mexicans; it is that independent, rebellious, and honorable spirit which comes to define the Western hero and their values. I think this moment also finalizes the comparison between Raza and Bill, as Raza needs Maria and Bill needed Chiquita.

The ambiguity of Bill’s feelings in that moment and regarding his past is voiced several times throughout the film. At one point he says, “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?” The unfolding of the film’s final moments allows Bill to reclaim his past and to find again what it means to do “good.” This question of fighting a war for the sake of other people alludes heavily to the current events at the time of the film as American involvement in the Vietnam War is a topic of great moral strife for Americans. The professionals of the film, particularly Bill and Rico, can be compared to Vietnam veterans who return and are disillusioned about whether their service there was really serving justice or not. By having Bill’s disillusionment be resolved through a reigniting of his original Western hero spirit and values it seems the film is asserting that regardless of the outcome of the battle, the American spirit, in this case the Western hero values, is what is being celebrated. As topics relating to race were especially prominent in the United States during the ’60s, it is appropriate that Brooks includes a black cowboy as part of the gang in order to not only suggest that blacks and whites can get along, but that black people are part of the history of America and the West and are to be valued as such. Even as late as 1966 there were hardly any black actors being hired for starring roles in Hollywood aside from Sidney Portier, and they appeared even less in Westerns.

By the film’s end as the group ride off I get the sharp feeling that though they have won in the one scenario over Grant they will nevertheless fade into oblivion, just as the old-fashioned Western has faded. There is an irony in those characters: they are characters on the margin of society – outlaws, rebels, lonemen – but are only able to get money from the likes of Grant. Though they triumph and soar over Grant in terms of spirit and character, it is Grant that will continue to live and prosper and someone like Grant who will eventually run the country. The Old West has faded and I think Brooks is taking one long look back in admiration amidst the problems of his modern world.

07 October 2008

Film Journal: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

One idea which occurred to me when watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is that George and Martha, though adults, remain children due to their inability to become parents. The most defining relationship they seem to have is not really with each other as husband and wife, but as children under their father or father-in-law. These patriarchs hold the most power in the film, even though physically absent, and it seems that as long as George and Martha remain without child they will continue to be under their control. Thus, George and Martha’s attempts to have a child seem to be a way in which they can gain back some control in their life, by being in that position of power over their own child. Since they are unable to have an actual child, they invent one in order to feign order and control in their life, a false front that comes tumbling down over the course of a long night and an obscene amount of drinks.

The child-like qualities of George and Martha come out in several ways. I think it is more obviously seen with Martha at first, as she seems to be all id with her near-hysterical laughter, her manic change of moods, and her playfulness. George, who speaks intelligently and surrounds himself with the books on the shelves, seems to be more mature at first, but only before his third drink. George assumes child-like postures when he sits on the swing by himself and then immediately afterward when he trades stories with Nick. He also makes suggestions of games such as “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” which are obviously not games, but which suggest that George is more of a frustrated child than anything else. The way George and Martha seem to rationalize life seem to be to make everything into a type of game: the way they relate with each other is a type of power game; they invent a child and a story for it as if it were a game, which has certain rules; they play act with each other. It is these types of games which keep George and Martha going, simultaneously stimulating some kind sadomasochistic libido in Martha.

I believe the issue of parenthood is more important for George than for Martha. After all, it is the father figure who is the one in power and thus it is by George becoming a father himself that he can gain equal footing. It is significant then to consider that it is George who is sterile, not Martha. His inability to have a real child causes him to produce a novel as a type of surrogate son, a labor of love which also could not come to fruition. Martha notes other failures and embarrassments of George throughout the night – his getting punched in the face by her, his failure to become head of the department – and it becomes clear that the burden of not being parents, rich, or of status lies on George’s shoulders. I think it is then appropriate that George is the one to kill the imaginary child by the film’s conclusion. This may be the first assertive act towards a renewed relationship and life that George has taken, a symbolic killing of the games he and Martha play and the hint of ascension from childhood to adulthood. This is reinforced through the idea of hope by the final shot of joined hands and dawn’s light coming in through the window, an image that could come from any family melodrama (All That Heaven Allows, for example) to signify a happy ending. Though George is still not able to become a parent, the killing of the fake son suggests that he is at least no longer a child; maybe it is the shift from childhood to manhood.